It was a play John Havlicek has made a thousand times. With the score tied 28-28 midway in the second quarter of the seventh and final game of the New York-Boston playoff for the NBA's Eastern Conference title, Havlicek dribbled down the middle of the court a fraction of a step ahead of three pursuing Knicks. Past the foul line, he smoothly took off, the ball in his right palm, and floated it toward the lip of the rim with an easy, underhanded motion. Usually a sure two points, often three, this time the shot yielded none. It described a pathetic arc nearly a foot below the basket. It was an injured layup by the injured star of a wounded team, a proud team that never had lost the seventh game of a playoff, but would this day by a humiliating score of 94-78.
"It had been feeling better," said Havlicek of the shoulder he wrenched so badly in the third game that it had left his right arm dangling almost uselessly at his side ever since. "But when I needed it, it just wasn't there."
Without Havlicek close to top form when they needed him, the Celts did not have it, either. New York collapsed on their only two remaining offensive threats, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White, and came up with its best defensive showing of the year. Playing his seventh exceptional game of the series, Walt Frazier scored 25 points, including nine in the third period when the Knicks broke to a 15-point lead, and he was aided and abetted by Dean Meminger, who came off the bench to put the clamps on White. But mostly it was one of those masterly, old-fashioned Knick team efforts. And it was just the sort of game New York will need in the finals against the Lakers, who looked as strong as ever after defeating the Warriors four games to one in the Western finals.
In a sense, the Knicks' seventh game victory was not unexpected, for it was a playoff series so lacking in discernible pattern that its lack of pattern was its most discernible characteristic. Frazier, Cowens and White performed consistently well, but the other men on the floor, including the referees, seemed disinclined to match them. No sooner would one team start to swing easy, to appear about to close the door on the other, than it would become unhinged. The result was a succession of switchbacks and setbacks that drove the players to emotional and physical exhaustion and left the fans teetering on the edge of their seats and schizophrenia.
It was a playoff in which the home-court advantage often wasn't. In three games at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks had lost but six times all year, they won one by 33 points, took another in double overtime and then, when a win would have clinched the Eastern title in six games, lost by 10. Following two consecutive fourth quarters during which they dissipated big leads, the Celtics clinched their most important victory with dominant play in the final period. Boston played 4� games with Havlicek either out of the lineup or playing lefthanded, and still prospered.
In the opener at the Boston Garden the Celts defeated New York 134-108 in a game that was not as close as the score. White, who had rarely played well against New York, was the primary cause. On previous occasions he often forced difficult shots in traffic, and the combination of the resultant wild misses and his hesitation shooting motion made him look like a man with an extra-large Golden Delicious lodged in his throat. Suddenly in these playoffs White often was a step ahead of his man, bursting in for driving baskets or selectively pulling up for his jumper. In the opener he led all scorers with 30 points, even though New York Coach Red Holzman tried Earl Monroe, Meminger, Henry Bibby and, finally, Frazier against him.
"He's usually six for 21 against us, or something like that," said Frazier of White, who hit 14 of 27 shots. "Tell him to stop that."
For the remainder of the series White rarely did. He averaged 23.6 points a game and, more importantly, teamed with Cowens to provide Boston with new, youthful leadership. It was their fresh maturity that kept the Celtics in the playoffs.
In the second game in New York the Knicks answered Boston's opening blast with a bigger one of their own. By winning 129-96, the Knicks handed the Celts their worst defeat in 216 playoff games and appeared to establish the home-court advantage as being more significant to the outcome of the series than Dave DeBusschere's jump shot or Paul Silas' offensive rebounding.
That was a theory dispelled two nights later in Boston when the Celts lost the game (98-91), the home-court edge, the services of Havlicek's shooting arm and any apparent hope of winning the series. Midway through the second half, as Boston rallied to cut a 15-point New York lead to two, Bill Bradley ran Havlicek into a blind pick set by DeBusschere. "I came across the baseline and set up," Dave said. "John didn't see me and Silas didn't call out the pick. John hit me so hard it drove me back." And so hard that Havlicek severely strained the trapezius muscle that runs from the nape of the neck along the back of the right shoulder. Havlicek left the game briefly, but had returned by the time the Knicks put together the first of their three fourth-quarter outbursts. New York scored 10 straight points early in the fourth period, six of them by Bradley, whom Havlicek was attempting to guard without being able to raise his right arm.